Local Communities: Key Players in Addressing Climate Change

by Sharon Lezberg, Community Development Educator

There’s no doubt that Individual actions such as eliminating air travel, reducing car miles, and eating less meat can result in significant carbon reductions. I know from my own experience that when my friends and colleagues are taking action, it motivates me to follow their lead.

Individual actions can also catalyze large-scale government actions, which is where the impact can be multiplied, such as when government entities invest in energy efficiency, transportation alternatives, and policy initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and address climate impacts.

State and local governments have many opportunities to take action to mitigate climate change impacts. Local governments manage facilities, fleets, and operations – an internal review can identify opportunities for improved energy efficiency. Local governments manage resources (parks, natural areas, water bodies) and services (recycling, composting) and are already involved in a wide range of sustainability initiatives in planning and managing development and stewardship of these resources.

Local governments can go beyond standard practices by promoting energy and resource efficiency, conservation, and climate change adaptation. Some examples of initiatives adopted by local governments include:

  • retrofitting fleet vehicles to all electric,
  • proactive planning to protect natural areas and farmland,
  • zoning for dense housing and retail in city centers,
  • requiring or prioritizing LEED certification on new buildings,
  • providing incentives to households and businesses to retrofit structures for energy efficiency
  • improving and expanding the urban tree canopy
  • designating pollinator and native plant habitat areas.

Communities have taken various approaches on their paths to sustainability. A general outline follows for steps a community sustainability committees might take:

  1. Develop a sustainability plan
    a) Identify a sustainability committee comprised of engaged residents and staff members
    b) Create a vision for your community
    c) Establish benchmarks (understand the situation)
    d) Determine goals and objectives
    e) Engage community residents
    f) Involve municipal staff
    g) Set targets and timelines
    h) Develop, implement, and monitor the plan
  2. Learn from other communities
    a) Participate with other municipalities in learning and collaboration
    b) Work with neighboring communities on regional grant applications to implement sustainability initiatives
  3. Engage and educate community members
    a) Provide information resources to support household conservation and sustainability efforts such as retrofits, solar electric, heat exchange units, electric vehicles, composting, rain gardens
    b) Collaborate with local nonprofits and educational institutions to promote actions that individuals can do to reduce climate change impacts
    c) Develop programs to provide financial incentives and technical assistance for household and business energy efficiency
    d) Promote alternative transportation (public transportation, biking, walking) and provide residents with information about routes (through maps, phone apps).

If your community is ready to engage in sustainability planning, you have many examples of other communities in Dane County that have been engaged in this work. Rather than starting with a blank slate, you can model your sustainability team processes from those who have gone before you (including the Cities of Madison, Middleton, Monona, Fitchburg, Sun Prairie and the Village of McFarland).

Representatives of your community can also join the Sustainability Leaders Collaborative, a collaboration of cities, towns, villages, and school districts focused on climate change, which is coordinated by the Dane County Office of Energy and Climate Change (DCOECC). The DCOECC also provides resources for local governments on how to reduce emissions.

If your community has not yet developed a sustainability plan or engaged the public in sustainability efforts, contact your Community Development Educator at your local Extension office to begin a discussion about developing a sustainability team. Our office can help you plan a program for your sustainability team and facilitate public input in these efforts.


American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change. https://daneclimateaction.org/

Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI). Community Sustainability Working Group Assessment Report, June 2021. https://wicci.wisc.edu/community-sustainability-working-group/

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